The first time I met Robert Pattinson, a few months shy of the release of Twilight in 2008, he strolled into the lobby of the Beverly Hills hotel completely unnoticed. No one had the slightest notion that his character, the charismatic vampire Edward Cullen, would soon prevent him from sustaining any kind of normality come the release of the film. He said back then, "I still haven't decided if acting is going to be my career. I don't know if it's going to work out. Who knows if people will go and see this movie?"'
As we know, this would turn out to be an understatement of epic proportions. This afternoon, three years later, we're in the same hotel but with a few changes to the scenery. Two burly bodyguards stand protectively outside his door, a couple of hundred paparazzi wait in the street and a horde of teenage girls are ready to stampede.
Life hasn't turned out the way Pattinson expected. Reminding him of what he said previously, he laughs. "You know, seriously, I just never thought I'd have that kind of effect on anyone and I still don't really understand it."
Although it's not unusual for British actors to speak in a self-deprecating manner, Pattinson appears genuine. Admirably, all things considered, he's retained his sanity and isn't overly attached to his status.
"I think the people who lose their minds are the ones who've been fighting to attain fame for years and years," says the 24-year-old. "If and when they suddenly achieve it, they're like, 'yeah, I deserve everything I've got'. For me, I literally took a step in one direction, not knowing what I was doing at all. It just happened. So I can't really claim anything."
Sitting on the sofa, he's dressed unremarkably - in black jeans, worn Doc Martens, a checkered shirt and grey cardigan - as though there's a faint chance he may go unnoticed. The paparazzi and the fans outside are proof he's failed on that count. Although unfailingly polite, talking about his new movie Water for Elephants, he seems a little on the low-energy side. His demeanour prompts the question, if it were possible to go back in time would he change that fateful decision to play the iconic vampire? Thinking for while, he says, "Well, if I had come out to LA, not got a job and had to go back to London, it would have pissed me off. I wouldn't have liked that, but I mean, this is extreme," he says, glancing out the window at the ever-increasing crowd.
With five new movies out in the next 18 months - including the final Twilight instalment - Pattinson's star wattage may be about to further intensify, if that is possible.
He has just finished filming Breaking Dawn (which will screen in two parts) over four hard months in Vancouver, as well as the thriller Bel Ami with Uma Thurman. He'll begin filming Cosmopolis, which follows a multimillionaire on a 24-hour odyssey across Manhattan shortly. For now, though, it is Water for Elephants, a romantic drama about a Depression-era travelling circus, which is his focus.
Pattinson shines as the actor he was destined to become in Water for Elephants. He plays a veterinary student who loses his parents in a car accident and hops a circus train, embarking on a torrid affair with the circus master's wife.
He stars opposite Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Walz, who deliver the kind of performances that force Pattinson to raise his game. In doing so, he proves to be more than just a pretty face and capable of venturing outside of his comfort zone. Apparently, there's some common sense lurking beneath his carefully dishevelled hair.
"Becoming 'in demand' quickly affords you the opportunities to work with people who are far more experienced than you," he says. "I think you need to take those opportunities and not always try to shoulder the entire burden of a movie. In order to do that, you need to be mindful not to let your ego get ahead of you."
The US$40 million ($49.7 million) film succeeds on the strength of the chemistry and realism between Witherspoon and Pattinson's characters, and the forbidden love element of their relationship.
Interestingly, the last time Pattinson shared onscreen time with Witherspoon he played her son in Vanity Fair. He laughs. "Yes, it's strange. That was my first job. Now that I'm playing her lover, maybe in the future she'll play my daughter one day."
The heart and soul of the movie most definitely rests on the formidable presence of Tai, the four tonne, 42-year-old elephant. And it turns out she's no slouch in the acting department, having starred in Hollywood movies such as The Jungle Book and Bigger Than Life. Tai serves as the anchor in the chaotic atmosphere of the movie. And, like all females, she wasn't immune to Pattinson's charms.
"We all fell in love with Tai," says Pattinson, who has admitted he shed tears saying goodbye to the elephant on the last day of the shoot - something he has never done for his human co-stars. "It's funny, we were all told early on that we were just props in Tai's world, and I think there was definitely some truth to that. She had an aura.
"There's something incredibly peaceful about being around huge creatures that are incredibly gentle."
Taking on a role in the circus was a big step for Pattinson following a bad childhood experience. "The first time I went to a circus, one of the clowns died," he told Britain's Daily Record. "He had a joke car and it exploded."
Pattinson's parents quickly hustled the young boy out the circus tent but the event left its mark. "It was terrifying," says Pattinson. "And that's the only time I've ever been to the circus."
Fortunately, his latest experience has not been quite so traumatic. Although working with some of the 600 animals involved in the film - Tai the elephant aside - was a little nerve-wracking, he says.
For one scene, Pattinson had to wear a false arm to feed a hungry lion who was supposed to attack. As the cameras rolled, the lion pounced, ripping off the false arm and ignoring the bucket of meat. The actor admits that while the scene was well-controlled, he was terrified.
Mostly, though, Pattinson's screen time in Water for Elephants is relaxed and natural: a welcome relief after three years watching his tortured character in the Twilight series, which will come to an end with the release of Breaking Dawn, parts one and two. Pattinson wrapped his last scene for the final instalment in the franchise just a few weeks ago and now the fanged teeth and the pale makeup are gone.
He admits to mixed feelings about saying goodbye to Edward Cullen.
"I'll be very glad not to put those contacts in anymore or have to put on the sparkling makeup, but I will really miss the character. I do love the guy. I feel like I know him pretty well now."
Much ado has been made of his Twilight co-star, Kristen Stewart, and the nature of their offscreen relationship. Both have remained tight-lipped on the subject and have never made any public declarations, although there are numerous photographs, shot all over the world, documenting their romance.
In Breaking Dawn, their characters Edward and Bella marry and have a child. One of the most pivotal scenes is the birth of the couple's baby and turning Bella into a vampire.
"It was insane, intense," he says of the scene, explaining that Edward can either lose Bella or give her a bite and thus immortality. "It was a pretty traumatic scene for me to do as an actor and, frankly, horrible for me emotionally. Edward has tried for so long not to turn Bella into a vampire and now ... well, it's very sad. He feels like he has let her down."
Before Twilight, few knew the name Robert Thomas Pattinson. Now, of course, he can't walk down the street without being mobbed. Life, he says, is no longer "normal". You get the feeling he yearns for it to be.
"I was in New Mexico doing a road trip across the States with my friends. I didn't get recognised at first, but then a woman recognised one of my friends because he was next to me in a paparazzi picture - from two years before.
"Literally, we were in the middle of nowhere and this woman turns around and screams, 'aren't you Robert Pattinson's friends?' Then her head turned again and she looked at me. "She was in shock," he says. "This took place at a fairground outside of nowhere and I thought we'd have to find her an ambulance, which wouldn't have been easy."
It has taken him time to adjust to fame: the constant scrutiny, the longing to be anonymous in public.
"It's hard to walk down the street," he says. "You can't just do it in a regular way. I have to think about my moves. I can't just casually run out to the store to buy milk. I have to plan ahead and figure out if the paparazzi will be there."
He told Britain's Telegraph recently: "I kind of have a little breakdown every three months. You know, 'I've got to get out somewhere! Arrrrggghhh!' So you go out and a big crowd comes and you're like, I'm not going out for another three months."
Pattinson grew up in London the youngest of three. He has two older sisters - Lizzy, a musician, and Victoria, an advertising executive - with whom he gets along well. A self-described loner, he spent his time learning guitar and piano then started acting in local plays at the Barnes Theatre Company.
He made his screen debut as Cedric Diggory, the earnest young Hogwarts student whose death casts a shadow over the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005.
It was this role that caught the attention of Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. He was asked, with four other actors, to try out for the role of Edward Cullen. He had to make out on a bed with Kristen Stewart to see who had the best chemistry. "It has to be Rob," Stewart said afterwards.
Prior to acting, Pattinson did a little modelling. (His mother worked for a modelling agency while his father imported vintage cars from the US).
"I was a terrible model," he says. "I hated having to be skinny enough to be one of those little waif guys and I wasn't a beefy, gym guy either," he said. "So I was stuck between the two types and I never got any jobs."
Pattinson has a genuine passion for music, which can be heard on the original Twilight soundtrack, but he has no aspirations to take it professionally.
"It's just a hobby and it's important to me. I don't want to release an album. It would be judged as Edward Cullen's album, and I want to keep that part of my life for myself."
In gaining some distance from his famed vampiric character, he ventured into more adult fare last year and starred in Remember Me, opposite Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper. A dark story set to the backdrop of suicide and murder, it didn't exactly light any fires at the box office, although did garner some critical acclaim. Interestingly, it also indicated that his female-driven audience will not blindly follow him into any movie theatre unless the story resonates with them.
Hopefully in Water for Elephants, he may be seen in a different light. Does he wonder what his Twilight fans will think about this movie?
"I don't know. They seem to like quite traditional love stories and this is a big spectacle, with the central relationship a big, dramatic affair. It's another forbidden love story - not as much as Twilight, but there are some similarities in it."
For now, Pattinson is taking a short break before starting filming Cosmopolis, in which he plays a Manhattan millionaire. The film, which also stars Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti, is an adaptation from a novel by Don DeLillo, one of Pattinson's favourite authors. It's due for release early next year.
He may have company on the film shoot - a brown and speckled mutt named Bear he recently adopted from an animal shelter in Louisiana, just days before it was due to be euthanased.
"I'm really enjoying looking after him and he'll come everywhere with me now, wherever possible."
No doubt life will continue to change for Pattinson, which is something he is keen on. He's more than ready to prove he can do more than play a white-faced, poetry-reading vampire.
"I'm not complaining, but I will say, that if in 25 years' time people are still screaming, 'Edward!' when they see me, I think I might murder someone."
Water for Elephants opened yesterday.